BASKETBALL

On the Rebound

Basketball looks to return next season, but how will it look for team dealers and their schools?

Unfinished business. That’s the best way to describe the 2019-20 basketball season, which will remain, for the most part, forever in limbo with many unanswered questions and dreams frozen in time.  Were Obi Toppin and the University of Dayton Flyers good enough to have won March Madness? Would NCAA women’s Division I Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu and her University of Oregon Ducks teammates have fulfilled their destiny by winning the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament?  Closer to home, what about those thousands of high school seniors whose final season of high school basketball was suddenly and emotionally cut short?  

Even closer to home, how were team dealers impacted by the abrupt end to the school season and just how will the sport rebound at the scholastic level this winter?

When the NBA suspended play on the evening of March 11, it started a domino effect that impacted every level of basketball play around the world. The NBA’s announcement was a catalyst that drove decision making in all sports at all levels around the world. That’s the global power of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the worldwide reach of basketball.  

If basketball’s creator -- Dr. James Naismith -- were alive today, he would be impressed by the global power and influence of the game that he invented — and equally saddened that it had to be at the forefront of a global sports shutdown.

There is one piece of good basketball news that comes Mark Koski of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), who reports that 11 state high school basketball championships were completed and broadcast by the NFHS Network. So there was closure in some high school basketball circles this year.  

For team dealers the impact was much less than it was when the spring sports season was cancelled, since most school hoops seasons were played to near-completion, with only the loss of post-season tournament sales and awards.

But clearly the fallout from COVID-19 continues to linger and it will certainly impact the upcoming scholastic 2020-21 basketball season. Just what that impact will be is a subject for debate and won’t be answered until this fall.

Who’s Playing Hoops?

For as long as the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) has been tracking sports participation patterns, basketball has been the single most popular team sport in terms of actual participation in the U.S. That trend continues even in a pandemic.  

As recently as 2018, there were 24.2 million basketball players in the U.S., which is actually 8.5 percent more than in 2016. But since 2013, basketball participation in the U.S. has remained steady — in the vicinity of 22-24 million players.  

What’s really driving the basketball business for team dealers is the core participant, defined as those playing 13 or more days a year. According to SFIA, there are 14.9 million players in the U.S. who are classified as core basketball participants, a list that includes everyone from Lebron James and Steph Curry to all college basketball players to the millions who play in local rec leagues, on school teams, on the travel circuit or in regular neighborhood pick-up games every week.  

With those numbers in mind, it is no surprise that hoops has the largest amount of core participants and the highest percentage of core participants among team sports.

Among some other numbers important to team dealers:

There are far more males (19.3 million) than females (5.6 million) playing basketball in the U.S., according to SFIA.  

• The typical basketball player is male, age 6-17 and from a family with a household income of at least $75,000 a year.

• The heaviest concentration of basketball players in the U.S. – nearly 20 percent – lives in the South Atlantic region.  

• More than 40 percent of all basketball players in the U.S. have yet to graduate from high school.

• On the flip side, it’s worth noting that more than 25 percent of all basketball players in the U.S. are 35 or older.

• According to figures from the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), 66 percent of all basketball play in the U.S. in 2019 was recreational rather than organized.

• The top 10 most popular states for boys’ high school basketball are Texas, California, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin. For girls the top 10 are Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and New Jersey.

• The traditional hotbed for basketball in the U.S. remains at the high school level and figures released by the NFHS reveal the powerful popularity of the game for both boys and girls. Basketball ranks number one for both genders in terms of the number of schools that sponsor teams. For boys, there are 18,617 schools with a team; for girls, there are 18,210. Basketball ranks number three for both boys and girls in number of participants.  

• Again according to NSGA, from 2000-2009, there were an average of 27.1 million basketball players in the U.S. From 2010-2019, that dropped to 25.2 million, a seven percent decline.

“One of our big concerns is how basketball – and all sports – will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Marty Maciaszek, NSGA’s director of communications. “Will participation be impacted because of a time frame where people may not have had access to a gym or court to play? Will the economic hardships many are facing from COVID-19 impact the ability of kids to play basketball next season?

“We definitely hope this isn’t the case,” he adds. “Seeing kids returning to play this summer is very encouraging and, hopefully, there won’t be many major issues keeping kids and adults off the court during their organized seasons this fall and winter.”

On the Front Lines With Dealers

Despite the fact that the 2019-20 came to a abrupt halt in mid-March, team dealers feel confident that players will return to the sport and that spending on basketball product will return. But the rebound, no pun intended, may take some time.

In the south Florida community of Jupiter, optimism is high that basketball will bounce back strongly from the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m confident that basketball will happen next season, but we need the schools to open up,” says Kevin Licata, manager of Medallion’s Sporting Goods, who reports that the majority of his basketball business comes from local recreation programs, travel teams and a few high schools.

“I have 80 teams in a local recreation basketball program,” says Licata. “I sell them basketballs, shorts, socks and shirts that we decorate. The socks are either solids or stripes. Occasionally, I introduce a few crazy sock designs.”

At the high school level, he supplies warm-up gear for the players, polos for the coaches and fan wear for spectators. And business is strong.

“We do have 10-12 local, independent travel basketball teams that buy from us,” Licata says, purchasing mostly uniforms, warm-up gear, basketballs, sandals and socks. The parents of the travel team players will also chip in and buy additional items.

He does not sell basketball shoes simply because there are too many brands, designs, sizes and colors to stock in order to meet the ever-changing demands. Plus, many players want a Nike shoe and he doesn’t sell Nike.

Licata’s walk-in traffic by individuals looking to buy a basketball, apparel, headbands, nets and socks is another plus for his basketball business.

In southern Indiana, the 2019-2020 basketball season was a good year, financially, for Kratz Sporting Goods, Clarksville, IN. But high school basketball players in Indiana lacked full closure. Salesman Jim Brown reports that high school girls were able to crown state champions in the Hoosier state, but the boys were only able to complete the first round of the post-season.

The presence of COVID-19 did impact the basketball schedule, but it has not negatively impacted interest. “Because it’s Indiana, everybody plays basketball and will continue to do so,” says Brown. “Because of the volume of play, it is our number one sport.”

Brown and his associates sell basketball gear, footwear, apparel and accessories to every level of play starting with elementary schools up to small colleges, such as Hanover College in nearby Hanover, an NCAA Division III school.

“We just sell basketball footwear from Adidas,” says Brown. “That brand remains very popular with boys and girls in Indiana.”

It’s fair to say that Brown is not sure what the 2020-21 season will look like. “In Indiana, we have a wait-and-see-attitude,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m in touch with basketball coaches through Zoom meetings. We have produced videos so we can showcase new product without seeing customers in person.”

Bleak in Illinois, Optimistic in Kentucky

In neighboring Illinois, basketball is a very good business for Eich’s Sporting Goods, Plainfield, IL, which sells uniforms, socks, practice gear and pinnies, according to Pat Shanahan, team sports sales rep. Shanahan says he’s “hopeful” and has his “fingers crossed” that sports will resume in the new school year. Right now, the situation in Illinois is bleak.

“Everything is being cancelled this summer, not just basketball,” says Shanahan.

In the Bluegrass State of Kentucky where basketball is king, Tony Carter, co-owner of Duke’s Sporting Goods, Elizabethtown, KY, is optimistic that the boys’ and girls’ high school basketball season will take place as planned.

New uniform orders were placed back in February and he is expecting to sell his regular allotment of Spalding basketballs and Adidas shoes, plus customized socks, scorebooks, nets and practice gear.

Because of the coronavirus restrictions, the one category that Carter expects to sell more of this year will be water bottles, since every player should have their own.

Up in Michigan, the basketball business is on the upswing for Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, in Battle Creek.

“Our basketball business is growing, especially with travel teams,” says owner Keith Manning. “Many kids are transitioning out of rec basketball and onto travel teams where there’s better competition, tougher competition and more games.”

Travel teams are purchasing reversible jerseys, which are often sublimated, socks, practice packs, backpacks and basketballs, especially the state-approved high school Rawlings basketball. The one basketball category that Jack Pearl’s does not sell is basketball shoes.

One hot product he is selling are reversible jerseys to middle school programs.

“With having to take care of one jersey, that’s one less item that the players must bring to a game and one less item that they have to take care of during the season,” Manning explains.

He is quick to compliment the manufacturers of basketball jerseys on the quality of their uniforms, which he says is now better than ever. Even though high school varsity teams are buying new uniforms every three or four years, the existing jerseys are still in great shape for the junior varsity and freshman teams to wear.

“Today’s basketball uniforms are made to last,” says Manning. “That gives schools a better bang for their buck.”

As Manning looks to basketball’s immediate future, he’s not sure what will happen with high school sports, or sports in general, but he knows what society needs.

“I’m hoping they (schools) get back to a normal lifestyle for these kids,” says Manning. “There’s talk of the spring sports, like baseball and softball, being played in the fall and the fall sports, like football, being played in the spring, but I don’t think that will happen.”

Right now, basketball coaches in Michigan are in touch with Manning, but nobody is spending any money, yet.

“Everything is in a state of limbo,” he says. “Coaches have been told to put a hold on spending.”

Manning is ready for a rush of business when schools, players, and coaches get the approval to play ball — and to spend some money.

In Marietta, OH, Zide’s Sporting Goods sells basketball to schools, teams, clubs and recreation programs in both Ohio and neighboring West Virginia. Whatever a basketball team needs, owner Rod Zide will deliver it — his inventory includes uniforms, basketballs, shoes, goals, backboards, nets and scorer’s tables.

“When it comes to selling basketball, we try to be as aggressive as we can be,” says Zide, who remains confident that the 2020-21 basketball season will take place. “It’s amazing to see how coaches and players have learned how to adapt.”

In Cumberland, MD, owner Larry Brooks of Riverside Sporting Goods sells basketball to schools, clubs and recreational programs in four different states — Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

While basketball is an important part of his sales portfolio, it’s one of his least profitable categories. And, it’s not currently one of his priorities.

“Right now, basketball is the least of our thoughts due to COVID-19,” says Brooks.

While Brooks is looking forward to delivering basketball product this fall, he’s more concerned with trying to recover from the national shutdown this past spring, which continues to linger.

“We probably lost 80 percent of our baseball business since March,” says Brooks. “But we’re slowly seeing things beginning to pick up.”

While basketball is a category that he sells every year, it’s not as big as football or baseball.

“Basketball teams don’t buy that much other than uniforms, basketballs and practice gear,” says Brooks. “Plus, there are not that many players on a team. With youth teams, it’s usually just shorts and a shirt.”

Masked Up in Ohio

In Ohio, COVID-19 has severely disrupted the basketball business for Scott Nelson, founder and owner of Local Team Shop, Coshocton, OH, who says basketball is a key, critical sales category for his business. But that category is in survival mode.

“Right now, basketball is not good in the Midwest,” says Nelson.

Nelson only sells soft goods in basketball. “I sell 100 percent cloth in basketball – such as uniforms, practice gear, socks, T-shirts and polo shirts – to teams, coaches and to fans,” says Nelson. “I sell to roughly 30 schools in Ohio.”

The one hot soft goods category Nelson is selling is protective masks, which are sublimated and customized with team names and logos. “That’s one hell of a pivot, no pun intended,” says Nelson. “And, I have created a new brand for these masks — safefaced.com.”

In recent months, Nelson has sold nearly 30,000 masks to roughly 100 schools, mostly in Ohio.

“The mask business really started out as a public awareness program and now it’s taken off with strong sales,” says Nelson. “I’m now branching into other sports, such as golf.”

In Texas, the current focus is more on football than basketball, reports Jessie Garcia, owner of Complete Athlete, Port Neches, TX. If the football season can take place in Texas, without too many delays or interruptions, then basketball and other sports will have a better chance of having their seasons being played as well.

For Garcia, he services most of his basketball clients in July and August. As a full-service team dealer, he sells everything — uniforms, shoes, socks, practice gear, warm-ups and basketball systems.

Looking forward, Garcia is feeling skeptical, yet trying to be cautiously optimistic, about a full scholastic basketball season for the 2020-21 season in Texas. But, of course, it all depends on how football goes this fall in the Lone Star state.

“If football goes away, I don’t know where we’d be,” says Garcia.

On Schedule in Missouri?

In Missouri, the abrupt stoppage of the basketball season in March and the cancellation of spring sports was tough to take. “It was a rough time,” says Mike Weir, owner of Red Weir Athletic Supplies, Columbia, MO. He remains cautiously optimistic that the 2020-21 basketball season will go off without a hitch because coaches, athletes and parents have a back-to-school mentality in the greater Columbia area.

“Everybody is thinking about going back to local schools and colleges on schedule,” says Weir. “But, who knows?”

Thankfully, many local high school basketball coaches have a business-as-normal mindset when it comes to ordering new uniforms. “I’ve already sold basketball uniforms to schools that are on a rotation to replace existing uniforms,” says Weir.

Out in Las Vegas, NV, the negative impact of COVID-19 on the basketball business for Turf Sporting Goods was substantial.

“While high schools did finish their season, the AAU teams didn’t play tournaments and the NBA Summer League was cancelled,” says owner Jerry Okuda. “From time to time, we do some rush jobs for the NBA teams.”

When basketball teams are buying from Okuda, they are purchasing basketballs, uniforms, practice gear and socks, some of which are custom designs.

“Many of the uniforms are sublimated,” says Okuda. “More and more middle school teams are buying reversible jerseys so the players only have to bring one jersey to games.”

Okuda feels the basketball business will return, but how quickly it rebounds will all depend on how soon students return to school.  

“We need to get the kids back in their schools,” he says. “That will also help the local recreation leagues, which is a big part of our basketball business.”

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